NAIROBI, KENYA – It’s 9 p.m. on a Saturday, and from the entrance of the Pango F3 club, a 6-inch glass heel pierces the air. Stepping into the strip club reveals the heel’s owner: an agile exotic dancer, garbed in a red G-string bikini and gyrating seductively on a golden pole, entertaining the mesmerized clientele.
”[I’m] just here to have fun,” says Bhavesh, a regular at Pango F3, who declined to give his full name to avoid the social stigma attached to patronizing strip clubs. ”I want to meet new people for a fun time. My heart was broken. Now I just want to have fun.”
A businessman from India who now lives in Nairobi, Bhavesh says that he discovered Pango F3 on the Internet.
The music steadily escalates to a crescendo at 11:30 p.m., as the club fills and a group of 15 Australian tourists streams in. The disc jockey plays a string of international hits, the club floor lights dim, strobe lights pulsate and the spotlight focuses on Norah. Norah, an exotic dancer, climbs the golden pole and whips her long weave around as she slides down it. She lands on the table and gyrates upside down, balancing on her head.
The patrons go wild and stand in line to tip her with 1,000-shilling bills, $12 USD, in her G-string. The DJ fires up the music, and the drinks flow freely. The pole is never vacant. Every dancer dances to five songs.
At the back of the club, a woman wearing a black blouse, blue form-fitting jeans and flat shoes supervises the club. Sabrina, the supervisor and trainer of Pango F3’s team of 10 exotic dancers, watches attentively, periodically speaking to the dancers. Sabrina, who usually tells people she works in business, says she and the other dancers declined to give their full names because of the stigma attached to stripping in Kenya.
Sabrina used to be a Pango F3 dancer herself before she was promoted. She says she started out as a traditional dancer, but then became an exotic dancer because it felt more natural.
”I enjoy dancing, and whenever I would hear music, I would just want to take my clothes off,” she says. “And that is how I [began].”
She says the dancers work six nights a week, with an aerobics session every evening from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. and dance routine rehearsals from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. No criterion is required to be an exotic dancer except passion, Sabrina says.
”Your body speaks for you,” she says.
But dancers are not allowed to be intoxicated. Sabrina points out a new stripper who has trouble dancing.
”She’s new,” Sabrina says. “We liked her because she had a light complexion. She can’t dance [because] she’s high [intoxicated].”
Sabrina says she doesn’t condone drinking on the job.
”If you enjoy what you are doing, then you should be able to do it sober,” Sabrina says. ”I am giving her ’til next week. If she doesn’t change, then we’ll have to let her go.”
Unheard of just a few years ago, strip clubs are on the rise in Kenya. Some cite urbanization, Internet advertising and international pressure for their advent. The opportunity for economic gains also fuels the strip club industry, as exotic dancers say they can double the money they’d earn at other jobs, where they may be sexually harassed anyway. Yet because it is a new phenomenon, there are no clear laws on stripping or strip clubs, which register as bars and are sometimes raided by police. Advocates have proposed creating red-light districts to curb illegal activities around strip clubs and granting strippers legal rights.
A striptease is a performance, usually a dance, in which performers gradually remove their clothing to sexually arouse the audience, according to “Sex Tourism in Africa,” a 2009 book by Wanjohi Kibicho. Kibicho notes that stripping can range from up-close dancing to physical contact and sexual intercourse, but that this is rare in Kenyan strip clubs. Stripping accounts for 9 percent of Kenya’s sex business and mainly serves the tourism industry, according to Kibicho. Male strip clubs do exist but are not as common as female strip clubs.
Just seven years ago, strip clubs were unheard of in downtown Nairobi, says Dr. Chris Hart, a psychologist. Now, patrons and managers estimate there to be about 10 public strip clubs, like Pango F3, in Nairobi and 20 private clubs, which are houses that groups rent out per night for private events such as bachelor parties. Because strip clubs are so new, there are no official statistics.
Not far from Pango F3 is a competing strip club, Liddos. Liddos is known for its erotic and alluring posters plastered across Nairobi’s central business district. Female patrons enter for free, but male patrons pay 300 shillings, $3.60 USD.
The strippers dance in turns on the pole to the pulsating music. Others give patrons lap dances, while still others dance in the aisles of the club throughout the night.
At 11 p.m. without fail, an endless reel of pornography plays on two 40-inch plasma TV screens. Liddos does permit nudity, but only after midnight. At exactly midnight, all the exotic dancers remove everything but their bikini tops.
One patron, Jeff, an articulate and pristinely dressed young man who also declined to give his full name to protect his reputation, speaks highly of the club as he watches a well-endowed exotic dancer spin on the pole, electrifying the predominantly male crowd.
”It is [a] great place to hang out,” he says. “It’s nice to see all this.”
Hart says the rise of strip clubs in Nairobi is due to Kenya’s “catching up with the world.” He attributes the rise to urbanization, exposure to attitudes abroad and the Internet.
Like Bhavesh, many clients say they find out about Kenyan strip clubs on the Internet. Some strip clubs, like Liddos, have a Facebook page to update fans about new events.
Mike Katana, Pango F3 manager, speaks of his famous clientele proudly.
“We have had international celebrities like Wyclef Jean, Shaggy, Gramps Morgan and Akon,” he says.
He says clubs like his strive to meet the demand from international visitors to provide services they could find in other parts of the world.
“When they come to Kenya to perform, they also look for their own entertainment,” he says of the celebrities. “They tell their promoters that they want to feel like they feel in Atlanta. And we give them that.”
Hart says strip clubs have no shortage of dancers because they can earn a high income. Winnie, one of the exotic dancers at Pango F3, says she used to work as a waitress at a bar in Nairobi but quit after her manager started to make sexual advances toward her.
”If it’s all about my looks, then I’ll make as much money as I can out of it,” she says of her choice to become a stripper.
Katana says that his strip club is the best because it doesn’t allow nudity like other less-established clubs and it attracts an elite clientele with an entry fee of 500 shillings, $6 USD, that most other competitors don’t charge.
“That makes it a private club,” he says. “It’s a members club.”
Lap dances at Pango F3 are also more expensive compared with competing downtown Nairobi clubs. A standard lap dance at Pango F3 costs 1,000 shillings, $12 USD, which the dancers and the club split evenly. At most other clubs, strippers make just 200 shillings, $2.40 USD, off lap dances.
The average income of a stripper in Nairobi is 10,000 shillings, $120 USD, a month, with most capable of making at least half that amount in tips on a good night, according to Katana. This is almost double the monthly per capita income in Kenya, and many live on much less with nearly half of Kenyans living in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Lucy, 21, a former exotic dancer, says she used her tips to put herself and her brother through school and to take care of their mother, who did not know she stripped. But she says life is not always glamorous for exotic dancers.
“This job isn’t easy,” says Lucy, adding that some strippers use cannabis to make performing easier. “You smile not because you enjoy yourself. You are here to please clients and get paid, so you fake a smile.”
Strip clubs, which are illegal in Kenya and, therefore, afford no legal rights to the dancers, are registered and licensed as bars. John Ngugi, treasurer of the Nairobi City Council, says that after the liquor licensing board awards bars and pubs liquor licenses, the city council must award them operating licenses and can’t control what they do after that.
”Our hands are tied,” Ngugi says. ”We don’t regulate how people drink beer – if they drink their beer naked or not.”
Police occasionally raid strip clubs, but in the absence of legislation, procedures are unregulated. Lucy recalls a raid in January 2009 at Barrels, another Nairobi strip club.
”It was around 2 a.m.,” she says. “We were dancing, and the police came in with guns and all the strippers were asked to take all their clothes off.”
She says the experience was painful.
“The police officers said that since we were able to dance naked, we didn’t need our clothes,” she says.
Lucy says the police alleged that the club had not paid for its license. The police rounded up the patrons and the dancers and whisked them to the police station.
”I was lucky,” Lucy says. “On my way out, I grabbed a pair of trousers and one patron gave me his jacket. The other exotic dancers were naked in the police van. The only clothed individuals were the patrons.”
Lucy says she was arrested and her bail was 2,000 shillings, $24 USD, an amount not all girls could afford.
”I was lucky,” Lucy says. “I had carried my phone and the tips I had made.”
At dawn, Lucy bailed herself out. But she says she left behind eight shivering colleagues who could not afford bail. Lucy left Barrels and started stripping at Liddos instead.
Other strippers have alleged that police officers have forced them to have sex with them in exchange for freedom, but Eric Kiraithe, Kenya Police spokesman, dismissed these allegations.
Kiraithe says that more needs to be done to regulate stripping. He says the Kenyan Penal Code, which does not differentiate between strippers and prostitutes, makes prostitutes – and those who profit from or pay for prostitutes – guilty of misdemeanors.
“The charge an offender can get is a misdemeanor with a 3,000-shilling [$36 USD] fine,” he says.
But the constitution has no specific provisions for exotic dancers.
“The law is vague on the matter of strip clubs,” Kiraithe says.
Evan Monari, a lawyer, says that no strip clubs existed to regulate back when the penal code was instituted.
“There is no clear line between exotic dancing and prostitution in Kenya,” says another lawyer, Duncan Mwanyumba. “It is all lumped up together.”
Kiraithe says stripping qualifies as an act of indecent exposure, which is also a misdemeanor and incurs the same fine as prostitution. But still, he says a stripper-specific law should be made.
“We need to look at our laws on morality – the implications of morality vis-à-vis our new constitution,” he says.
Hart says regulation is needed because strip clubs can lead to other illegal activities.
“They become a place where prostitutes, drug dealers, con and blackmail artists and so on [can] congregate,” Hart says.
Monari says the Kenya Tourist Board should work with local authorities to create a red-light district, like other big cities have done around the world.
”I am proposing with a very clear mind,” he says. “We need a well-regulated red-light district.”
Mwanyumba says that a red-light district will not only reduce crime, drug trafficking and human trafficking, but will also accord the strippers respect and dignity.
Currently, Koinange Street is an infamous and unofficial red-light district located in Nairobi’s central business district, which houses several businesses, banks and learning institutions. Mwanyumba, organizer of the Koinange Street Festival, a carnival established by local business owners to change the perception of the street, is working with the Kenya division of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, a nonprofit organization that promotes gender equality, on this year’s festival to advocate for legal rights for exotic dancers and prostitutes.
“The carnival will lead to a lobby for legislation for exotic dancers and prostitutes alike to make life better for them,” he says.